A Black Student’s Grad Tribute Was Replaced With a Racist 'Harambe' Message

The school board has apologized “to the Black community” and said it is launching an investigation into the racist incident.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
October 13, 2020, 4:28pm
Joshua Telemaque Harambe yearbook
Joshua Telemaque's yearbook blurb was replaced with a racist message. Photo supplied

A Catholic school district in Ontario is apologizing “to the Black community” after a Black student’s grad write-up was replaced with a racist message.

Joshua Telemaque, 17, a student at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School in Pickering, immediately east of Toronto, submitted a tribute to his grandmother in his write-up for the yearbook, saying “RIP Grandma. Thank you for guiding me through my four years of high school.”

But his words were replaced with the message, "Rip Harambe Dooga booga.O.”—a reference to a gorilla that died at Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 and subsequently became a meme.

In a statement provided to VICE News, Telemaque’s mother Marva said her son was “devastated” by the “racial slur.”

She said she’s reported bullying against her son to the school in the past, “but now they finally seem to be listening.”

In a statement, Durham Catholic District School Board apologized “to all individuals who have been impacted by the hurtful, malicious and racist comments” in the yearbook.

“In a time where we are taking intentional steps to address systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism, we would like to extend a direct apology to the Black community that we serve,” the statement said.

The school board said it is collaborating with police to investigate how the comments ended up being published.

“Appropriate disciplinary actions and/or restorative justice, will be enacted in accordance with board and Ministry of Education regulations and the law,” the school board’s statement said.

The school is currently recalling copies of the yearbook that have been given out.

St. Mary’s principal Susan Duane said in a statement the school was “horrified to discover that inappropriate comments were unknowingly published.”

Duane issued an apology “to the school community for the offensive, hurtful, and unacceptable nature of these comments.” She did not reference the affected student or his family in the apology.

A crowdfunding campaign has been started for Telemaque to support his post-secondary education. Telemaque, a football player, is hoping to play football for a Canadian university.

Telemaque’s aunt Mayma Raphael said on Facebook that her nephew has been “called a monkey” by students in the past, but the family “never thought that they would have taken it this far.”

His mother said she won’t allow someone’s prank to derail her son’s mental health.

“In a strange way this has been both the best and the worst Thanksgiving we’ve ever had. Someone tried to humiliate my son but people from all over the world have come together to support him,” she said.

The school board said educators “have a lot of work to do” when it comes to ending racism. Part of that is implementing an “Equity Action Plan” to “eliminate barriers, and promote an anti-racist culture of respect, belonging, and acceptance,” the statement said.

Earlier this year, posters surfaced at a Whitby, Ontario, public school claiming “Replacement of European Canadians is not a ‘conspiracy theory’; it is an undeniable fact,” according to Durhamregion.com. 

In 2017, a Durham-area public school told the CBC she heard a teacher refer to a group of Black students as a “n----rfest.” The teacher reportedly remained on staff for months.

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